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It depends what the definition of is is...
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It depends what the definition of is is...

The phrase It depends what the definition of is is... is a paraphrase of a quote from the grand jury testimony of President Bill Clinton on August 17, 1998 during the Starr investigation. The line has come into modern American English as a catch phrase appropriate to any situation where one finds spin, weasel words, flip-flopping politicians or prevarication.

The questioning session was largely a cat-and-mouse game, with the questioners attempting to catch Clinton in a self-contradiction or lie about his sexual history, and Clinton attempting to evade the questioning often by challenging the semantics of the questions. Much of the controversy surrounded on the stipulated legal definition "sexual relations", with Clinton asserting, based on prevous court testimony in the Paula Jones trial, as being only sexual intercourse, with oral and other engagements being excluded.

Clinton's opponents viewed his testimony in the grand jury as a descent into such depths of semantic hair-splitting that it became necessary for him to question the definition of the word is, a conjugation of to be, one of the most elemental verbs in the English language.

Clinton defenders, however, pointed out that he was not actually responding to a question of fact, but whether or not a particular statement by his lawyer was a false statement in regard to the definition that had been stipulated in court previously.

The exact question and response from the Starr Report[1] is (emphasis added on passage):

QUESTION: "Your—that statement is a completely false statement. Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form with President Clinton was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?"

CLINTON: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word is means. If is means is, and never has been, that's one thing. If it means, there is none, that was a completely true statement.

"But as I have testified—I'd like to testify again—this is—it somewhat unusual for a client to be asked about his lawyer's statements instead of the other way around. I was not paying a great deal of attention to this exchange. I was focusing on my own testimony. And that if you go back and look at the sequence of events, you will see that the Jones' lawyers decided that this was going to be the Lewinsky deposition, not the Jones deposition. And given the facts of their case, I can understand why they made that decision.

"But that is not how I prepared for it. That is not how I was thinking about it.

"And I am not sure, Mr. Wisenberg, as I sit here today that I sat there and followed all these interchanges between the lawyers. I'm quite sure that I didn't follow all the interchanges between the lawyers all that carefully. And I don't really believe, therefore, that I can say Mr. Bennett's testimony or statement is testimony that is impugnable to me. I didn't—I don't know that I was really paying that much attention to him."